Engaged Families and Communities

Decatur Teachers, Students Reaping Rewards from Big Brother Big Sister

This article is from the Illinois Education Association

Roxie Dotson, a 10- year teaching veteran, thought she knew what the kids she was teaching daily at Durfee Magnet School in Decatur were going home to at night.

Durfee has a 96 percent poverty rate. She’d attended trainings, taken kids home, helped them one on one, and worked with them and their parents. But until she got involved in the Big Brother Big Sister program at her school, a program that matched her with a Durfee student, she didn’t REALLY know.

“When you go into a home and see there are no walls, no beds, no sheets and there isn’t food,” she said through tears. “It’s really amazing.”

The Decatur Education Association and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Illinois joined forces at Durfee Magnet School, a school that officially focuses on technology and unofficially focuses on building a family atmosphere, to pair with students in an effort to further strengthen the school’s family community.

The program, funded by a grant from the National Education Association, has paired 13 of 17 teachers at the school with students hand-picked by the faculty to receive a loving and guiding hand.

So, when DEA and BBBS approached Principal Kirk Veitengruber about the program, he thought it would be a perfect fit.

“A lot of the teachers did these things on their own. This (program) formalizes it and provides more resources to the teach- ers and more support for the students who desperately need more positive adult role models in their lives,” he said. “These teachers care about these kids. It’s why they’re here, why they’re teach- ing at this school and why they became teachers …. I see them do wonderful things when they have a class of 23 or 24, but when you can spend that time one on one, it does amazing things.”

Zach Shields of Big Brother Big Sister of Central Illinois in Decatur said the pairing of teachers and students goes hand in hand with the organization’s philosophy.

“Studies that we have done over the years show that social and emotional support actually contributes to better long- term academic success, so we knew this was a concept we could sink our teeth into.”

Dotson, a Durfee kindergarten teacher and program organizer, said the Decatur Education Association was instrumental in getting the grant money and finding a way to put it to good use. As a result, Dotson said, the program has been rewarding for both the students and the teachers.

“I see students who are normally anxious about school are now excited,” she said. “The walls between teachers are broken down. The students feel calm, loved, encouraged — those strong character traits we want them to have — responsibility and accountability — there’s someone nurturing those things they already have inside them.”

The pairs were matched up late last school year so the teachers and the students could spend the summer getting to know each other, doing activities together and offering help to keep the stu- dents’ academics up to par through those three months.

Becky Helding, who has taught grade schoolers for 35 years, said it is the most rewarding thing she’s done in all her years of teaching. She gets giddy when she talks about her Little Sister.

“She runs to me on the playground and she’s so excited. Just seeing the glow on her face; it’s worth a million dollars.”
The same holds true for teacher Heather Herron who was paired with Malachi, a student who was frequently in trouble. Now Herron drops by his class and is on hand to calm him before his anger rages out of control.

“I have loved watching him grow and mature. He’s not just a student. He’s my friend. If I’m bored, I call him. We just have fun together.”

Malachi said Herron “keeps me out of trouble. I always used to get in trouble. She calms me down.” He said having the relationship with Herron has made school “feel like home.”

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